It wasn’t supposed to have been this way.
You see, I was supposed to spend the first weekend after Labor Day in South Bend, Indiana, watching my alma mater, the Georgia Bulldogs, play their first-ever road game against the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. I had rented a four-bedroom house for the weekend over 15 months ago. Tickets were purchased, flights were booked, cars were rented, tailgates were paid for—all well in advance.
Then Irma came into the picture.
By now, we all know Irma. She’s not anyone’s favorite gal. But when I first heard of her in late August, she was far, far away. All the way across the Atlantic, in fact—from the exhaled breath of Africa, a tropical wave that blew up into a Category 2 hurricane in a short 24 hours. Still, she worried me. I made precautionary reservations for four hotel rooms in Athens over 10 days before the storm ever approached us—just in case.
By the time she had made the journey across the Atlantic to visit the Caribbean and North America, Irma was a monster—the largest and most powerful tropical storm ever recorded, a galaxy-shaped Category 5 behemoth the size of Texas.Irma mangled the Leeward Islands before tearing through the Virgin Islands. It ripped through the Bahamas, Cuba and south Florida and kept on going, moving closer to us.
Seeing the hurricane approach, we made a painful, but necessary, decision. We cancelled our trip to Notre Dame. You see, family comes first—and we have family members who depend upon us. My father is 80; my mother-in-law is 87. And we could not leave them here to face the wrath of Irma alone.
When it looked like Irma might make landfall as a Category 3 storm in Savannah, we were all prepared to leave. But then its path shifted westward—right into our planned evacuation route. So our plans changed again.
Daphne and I spent the better part of two days bringing things in from the yard, the porches and the dock, filling tubs with water, stocking up on gasoline, batteries, non-perishable food and other post-hurricane supplies, closing our storm shutters on 18 windows, installing plywood over the larger windows on the house that face the river, and eating anything and everything we could in the refrigerator and freezer. Saturday night, we all ate pizza and watched Georgia defeat Notre Dame. Despite not being there for that thrilling event, we viewed the game without an ounce of regret—for we knew we had made the right decision. And on Sunday, just as we did during Hurricane Matthew last year, we moved my extended family into the sturdy, generator-equipped tropical storm bunker otherwise known as the Center for Digestive and Liver Health.
Our situation was not unique. Irma forced millions from their homes and onto the highways, filling hotels and guest bedrooms all over the Southeast. The recent horrific flooding that accompanied Hurricane Harvey in Texas was fresh in everyone’s mind as they fled a storm which was almost impossible to hide from due to its sheer size. We joked about our annual “hurricane reunion,” vowing not to do it again in the near future.
In Savannah, the winds, as we all know by now, were not as bad as Matthew, the storm having veered far west of us by the time it finally struck. The flooding, by contrast, was far worse. Many homeowners found themselves dealing with salt water rushing into their homes and garages. The day after the storm, I ventured out only to find that I could not reach my home, as it was completely surrounded by the Vernon River.
Upon arriving home the next day, we found our house without power, but largely undamaged. Our dock was covered in wrack, which was filled with armies of scuttling fiddler crabs and stank to high heaven—but it, too, was intact. We spent the day removing plywood, opening the storm shutters, cranking up a balky generator and cleaning up the mess, accompanied by a near-biblical plague of mating love bugs. It was exhausting work. My nightfall, I ached in places I didn’t even know I had.
But then, the lights came back on. Like many of us, I said a fervent prayer of thanks for the efficiency of Georgia Power.
So now I sit here, on the morning after we returned home, with a few minutes to reflect on it all.
Last year, in writing about Hurricane Matthew, I said that “the odds are that there will not be another storm like this in my lifetime.”
I am less sanguine about that now, less confident in the old local adage that “the curve of the coastline protects us.” Storms are random beasts; they do what they do. And no amount of magical thinking about the protected nature of our city’s geography can make me believe otherwise now.
But I learned something else from these twin weather events, separated by less than a year. We worry far too much about things that don’t really matter. We obsess over cars and homes and myriad petty injustices, and things like college football games—but at the end of the day, it’s the people we love who are most important. Everything else is as ephemeral as smoke.
Daphne and I have another full day of work ahead of us. We’re not done cleaning up Irma’s mess. But in the wake of this most recent storm, we have something else: profound gratitude. Because the people we love are OK. And that means everything.
Mark Murphy, M.D., is a Savannah physician and writer.